The capital city of Vietnam, Hanoi is everything that symbolises a busy Asian city. Wandering through the Old Quarter of the city is an assault on the senses; with busy little streets full of motorbikes, tiny hole in the wall restaurants and food stalls, all surrounded by old crumbling colonial buildings.
This is where we started our travels in Vietnam, and it gave me a great insight into the country. You should definitely spend at least a few days here to really experience the city.
Things to do in Hanoi
Just wandering around the Old Quarter is enough to keep you busy for hours. Grab a Bia Hoi (draught beer) or a Ca Phe Den (Vietnamese coffee) at one of the local corner bars or cafes and watch life go by. There are lots of specific sights to see as well:
Hoan Kiem Lake & Ngoc Son Temple
In the centre of the Old Quarter is the picturesque Hoan Kiem Lake, where local couples come to sit by the lake at all times of the day. This is a great place to grab a baguette and come and have a picnic.
Ngoc Son Temple sits on an island in the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake and it has a beautiful bridge connecting it to the mainland. The temple dates back to the 18th century and it contains an enormous embalmed turtle that came from the lake. Apparently there is also a 200kg turtle that still lives in the lake and can sometimes be seen from the temple. It costs 20,000 Dong ($1) to enter the temple.
Hoan Kiem Lake is especially beautiful at night when it is all lit up.
Dong Xuan Night Market
I love markets so I was excited when I found out that Hanoi has one right in the centre of the Old Quarter. The night market runs along the road from the roundabout at the top of Hoan Kiem Lake, all of the way up to the Dong Xuan Day Market. It is open on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights and is supposed to open at 6:30pm, however they were still setting up the stalls when we got there around 7pm. It’s best to wait until about 8pm if you want to see it in full swing.
The market has all kinds of things for sale and there is plenty of food stalls along the way, along with a bunch of Lau (hot pot) restaurants at the northern end.
Hoa Lo Prison
Built in the late 1800’s, Hoa Lo Prison is where the French kept the Vietnamese political prisoners, and then was later used by the North Vietnamese to hold American prisoners during the Vietnam War. Now a museum, Hoa Lo Prison is an interesting but sombre place to visit to learn about some of Vietnam’s history. Entry to the prison costs 20,000 Dong ($1).
St Joseph’s Cathedral
Located on the corner of Ly Quoc Su and Au Trieu, St Joseph’s Cathedral is an odd sight in such an Asian city. Stepping inside this old Catholic Cathedral is like being somewhere in Europe. The cathedral is free to enter and is open 5-7am and 5-7pm every day.
Bach Ma Temple
This small temple on Hang Buom is apparently the oldest temple in Hanoi, dating back to the 12th century. The temple is free to enter and the interior is very beautiful. Remember to be respectful and wear appropriate clothing.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
We didn’t actually get to visit here as we were there at the wrong time, but it is worth mentioning. The Mausoleum is the most sacred place in Vietnam as this is the resting place of Ho Chi Minh himself, whose body has been perfectly preserved to be viewed by the Vietnamese wishing to pay their respects. It is apparently free to enter the Mausoleum however it is only open from 8-11am on Tuesday to Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. You also must leave all cameras, phones and bags at the door.
There are also lots of other sites in the complex to check out so you could spend a lot of time here.
Where to stay in Hanoi
Nam Hai Hotel
We stayed here for four nights when we first arrived in Hanoi. Located on Duong Thanh, Nam Hai is right in the Old Quarter and close to plenty of restaurants. The hotel and room itself was very clean and beautifully decorated with wooden furnishings. The staff weren’t very friendly though, and they seemed to be annoyed with us because we didn’t book any tours with them. We paid $19 per night for a nice room with breakfast included. The buffet breakfast was nice, however when we checked out we were made to pay extra for the breakfast even though it was meant to be included in the price.
Camel City Hotel
We only stayed here for one night on our return from Cat Ba Island. I wish that we had stayed here on our first visit. The hotel was again lovely and clean and the room very comfortable. We paid $15 per night including breakfast, which they didn’t charge us extra for. The breakfast was really good. What made this hotel great was the staff. They were very friendly and did everything they could to make sure we had a nice stay. Camel City Hotel is located down a quiet alleyway off Dao Duy Tu and one of the staff met us on the street to show us the way, even though they had no idea what time we were arriving. They let us store our bags at the hotel while we waited for our night train and even let us use their shower in the afternoon before we left. It was raining when we had to leave to catch our train so the staff escorted us to our taxi with umbrellas to stop us from getting wet. Highly recommend this one!
Where to eat in Hanoi
When you wander around the Old Quarter you will stumble upon eateries of some sort on every street. There is a lot to choose from. Here are some of the places that we tried:
Café Linh Phung
Located on Dinh Liet just above Hoan Kiem Lake, we ate at Café Linh Phung twice during our time in Hanoi. Their food is great and also cheap. They have plenty of vegetarian options as well. Try the fresh vegetable spring rolls!
Bun Bo Nam Cho
There are lots of places to eat on Ly Quoc Su and around St Joseph’s Cathedral. This little restaurant serves up great Bun Cha among many other tasty dishes. The prices are great as well.
Bun Ca Hai Phuong
This little hole in the wall is located on Duong Thanh just down the street from Nam Hai Hotel. They serve up Bun (rice noodle soup) with meat. I had Bun Bo (beef) and Veronika had Bun Ca (fish). They don’t speak any English here but just point at the names on the board and you can get by ok.
The food here isn’t cheap, but with a great view of Hoan Kiem Lake, it is a good spot to go for a coffee and enjoy the view.
Joma Bakery Café
Located on Ly Quoc Su, this is a decent priced bakery and coffee shop. I found a really nice Macchiato here and their baked goods are very tasty. They also have free WiFi.
Quan Bia Minh
Located right next door to Café Linh Phung on Dinh Liet, Quan Bia Minh is a great place to sit on the balcony and have a 75 cent Bia Hoi (draught beer). The food isn’t anything great, but it’s a great place to go for a drink or two in the afternoon.
This is a tiny coffee shop on Au Trieu that serves really nice local coffee. An espresso here was only 75 cents and it was amazing. The shop also sells the coffee beans, teas and handmade mugs and other crafts.
There are plenty of street food stalls around the Old Quarter. Try a cheap and tasty baguette from one of the many carts or grab some marinated meat skewers at the night market.
It’s easy and safe to get around Hanoi in a metered taxi. Something to keep note of is that some taxis have dodgy meters that are sped up to charge you more. We got one of these once on our way to the bus station. Two companies that we found to be good were Mai Linh and Hanoi Tourist Taxi.